Recently, Social Misfits Media’s Community Manager, Angharad Francis, interviewed the brilliant Pushpa Aman Singh, Founder of GuideStar India. In this interview, Pushpa discusses her journey prior to founding GuideStar India, her role in helping NGOs and how WhatsApp is driving strong communication among stakeholders.
Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career prior to GuideStar?
After going to business school, I started my career in the corporate sector. I was working in financial services and my role was in the Managing Director’s office, which enabled me to gain an overview of running a large organisation. I then got into the non-profit sector in 2001 when I joined GiveIndia, the first and leading online giving portal in India. I was there for seven and a half years, and I had a fascinating time applying what had worked for me in the for-profit sector, including scaling up various systems and processes, to the non-profit space. I hadn’t imagined that I would spend the rest of my life in the non-profit space, but I’ve now spent more years in this sector than in the corporate space and haven’t felt bored even for one minute!
Why did you set up GuideStar India?
I started GuideStar India as a project of GiveIndia, as there was no single reliable and comprehensive database of non-profits in India. I felt very strongly that the information gap about non-profits in the country severely impacted philanthropy; it was so hard to find out who was doing what and where in the country, and then screen them through due diligence filters in order to give a guarantee that these were credible non-profits. We wanted to equip users with the tools to choose organizations and projects that matched their criteria or decision set, and to facilitate that, we needed to be inclusive. We want to have the entire population of non-profit organizations on an online system.
I was very fortunate that in October 2004 in South Africa, there was a meeting of social change market places that was convened, and I met Buzz Schmidt, Founder of GuideStar. I had heard of GuideStar in the US, but being face to face with the founder, and understanding the credibility of information in a self-reported model, based on transparency and public accountability, was like the discovery of a solution much needed in India. Just having thousands of non-profits in a repository that is continually self-updated, which is inclusive and non-judgmental, is comprehensive and searchable and is accessible to the public, seemed like critical infrastructure for India’s philanthropy marketplace. A robust information layer that would support other ecosystem components to build upon.
Can you tell us about some of your success stories with using WhatsApp?
Our team discovered that NGO leaders and staff responded instantly to WhatsApp messages vis-à-vis email. They also find it more convenient to share scanned documents through WhatsApp as they use their phones to click pictures of documents.
At the Digital Impact Conference of Stanford University PACS in Mumbai, India, we had participants from 60 non-profits from different parts of India along with professionals in tech-for-good from corporate and social businesses. We requested the Stanford PACS team to provide a glossary of terms that would help non-profits understand terms and acronyms that speakers and techies in the audience use. We emailed this glossary document to attendees and also WhatsApp’d the PDF, bridging the language barrier between those putting out tech tools and those using those tools. It was a great application that was much appreciated! Ever since that experience, we WhatsApp documents to NGOs. All our Giving Tuesday India toolkits and presentations are shared, in PDF, through WhatsApp. This comes in handy for references.
We also saw a successful use of WhatsApp when India Development Review created a video clip by asking non-profits to send their videos with a message via WhatsApp. This campaign was executed for #GivingTuesdayIndia in 2017 in just two days. Emails and messages were sent to NGOs, explaining the type of video we wanted, and people replied in two days via WhatsApp. The term Jugaad means being smart with a workable solution to get around imperfect technology or situations and I am proud to say that we’ve been doing a lot of Jugaad with our non-profit partners through WhatsApp.
Tell us about GuideStar’s role in helping NGOs get their messages to their audience and how does WhatsApp facilitate this?
Non-profits that we work with are across India, in big cities, smaller towns, even villages. Typically, what happens is that while non-profits have email access, they’re not native to digital media; not all of them check their emails every day, and they have challenges with internet, email access and language.
We’ve found that in the last four years, not just among non-profits, but for practically most phone users in India, WhatsApp has been a great medium of communication for work. Most people are a member of several WhatsApp groups created for a temporary group activity (an event) or groups around common areas of interest, affinity or purpose. People almost always access their phones throughout their waking hours and hence read messages quite quickly, resulting in immediate response or action. Non-profits do send us messages on Facebook also, but WhatsApp is the most active medium of communication. We require non-profits to sign up with GuideStar India for various campaigns, require them to submit documents for due diligence, etc. and we find they instantly respond to WhatsApp messages and are most comfortable sending documents through WhatsApp rather than by email. We use WhatsApp to send documents to volunteers for transliteration and translation of registration certificates of non-profits that are in regional languages. We get responses almost immediately on WhatsApp saving time and money. Volunteers also express satisfaction that could be of help. In some ways, I could say, WhatsApp enables micro volunteering of minutes!
In the first year of Giving Tuesday India in 2017, we made bespoke messages aimed at the non-profit audience and sent out through WhatsApp. We asked NGO leaders to join a dedicated broadcast list. We now have four broadcast lists, with almost a thousand NGOs. These NGOs are connected with other non-profit leaders and volunteers through groups. Some NGO leaders take the initiative to translate our messages so that key information gets shared further in other groups with which they’re connected. It is now almost customary that at every workshop, a leader emerges from the group who offers to create a local NGO WhatsApp group.
How do you see GuideStar India evolving?
Our biggest achievement is the enormous trust placed in us by our 9000+ non-profit partners who voluntarily share their information on www.guidestarindia.org. This is because non-profits leaders and staff are such wonderful people. It’s partly because there was such a huge information gap, but it’s also because we practice our values of being non-judgmental, inclusive and ethical in collecting data. I believe that placing interests of non-profits at the centre of every decision about our portal, products, offerings and programs keeps us aligned to our mission and values. We see ourselves as friends of non-profits, our primary stakeholder group, which has been very helpful.
In 2010, we launched the portal with 716 non-profits who completely trusted us with their information without having seen the portal. Now, we have close over 9,000 non-profits on our portal.
A 2012 report by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI) stated that 3 million non-profits have ever been set up in India. Out of these, about 200,000 are reported to be filing tax returns as non-profits. Our dream would be to have every one of those 200,000 non-profits on our portal. It won’t happen overnight. We don’t want to rush this either; we want non-profits to voluntarily embrace the system and make a lifelong commitment to transparency and public accountability, with full understanding of what it entails. We are of course forging strategic partnerships and taking significant steps to reach our goals.
To find out more about GuideStar India, their mission, work and stakeholders, visit: https://guidestarindia.org/